“But of all the sufferings in these troublous times none endured such horrors as did those Americans who were so unfortunate as to become prisoners of war to the British. ” – Southern Literary Messenger
Very little is known of the State navies of the south during the Revolution. Each State had her own small navy, and many were the interesting adventures, some successful, and others unfortunate, that the hardy sailors encountered. The story of each one of these little vessels would be as interesting as a romance, but we are here only concerned with the meagre accounts that have reached us of the sufferings of some of the crews of the privateers who were so unlucky as to fall into the hands of the enemy.
In the infant navy of Virginia were many small, extremely fleet vessels. The names of some of the Virginia ships, built at Gosport, Fredericksburg, and other Virginia towns, were the Tartar, Oxford, Thetis, Virginia, Industry, Cormorant, Loyalist (which appears to have been captured from the British), Pocohontas, Dragon, Washington, Tempest, Defiance, Oliver Cromwell, Renown, Apollo, and the Marquis Lafayette. Virginia also owned a prisonship called the Gloucester. Brigs and brigantines owned by the State were called the Raleigh, Jefferson, Sallie Norton, Northampton, Hampton, Greyhound, Dolphin, Liberty, Mosquito, Rochester, Willing Lass, Wilkes, American Fabius, Morning Star, and Mars. Schooners were the Adventure, Hornet, Speedwell, Lewis, Nicholson, Experiment, Harrison, Mayflower, Revenge, Peace and Plenty, Patriot, Liberty, and the Betsy. Sloops were the Virginia, Rattlesnake, Scorpion, Congress, Liberty, Eminence, Game-Cock, and the American Congress. Some of the galleys were the Accomac, Diligence, Hero, Gloucester, Safeguard, Manly, Henry, Norfolk, Revenge, Caswell, Protector, Washington, Page, Lewis, Dragon, and Dasher. There were two armed pilot boats named Molly and Fly. Barges were the York and Richmond. The Oxford, Cormorant, and Loyalist were prizes. The two latter were taken from the English by the French and sold to Virginia.
What an interesting book might be written about this little navy! Nearly all were destined to fall at last into the hands of the enemy; their crews to languish out the remainder of their days in foul dungeons, where famine and disease made short work of them. Little remains to us now except the names of these vessels.
The Virginia was built at Gosport. The Dragon and some others were built at Fredericksburg. Many were built at Norfolk.
The Hermit was early captured by the British. The gallant little Mosquito was taken by the Ariadne. Her crew was confined in a loathsome jail at Barbadoes. But her officers were sent to England, and confined in Fortune jail at Gosport. They succeeded in escaping and made their way to France. The names of these officers were Captain John Harris; Lieutenant Chamberlayne; Midshipman Alexander Moore; Alexander Dock, Captain of Marines; and George Catlett, Lieutenant of Marines.
The Raleigh was captured by the British frigate Thames. Her crew was so shamefully maltreated that upon representations made to the Council of State upon their condition, it was recommended that by way of retaliation the crew of the Solebay, a sloop of war which had fallen into the hands of the Americans, should be visited with the like severe treatment. To what extent this was carried out we cannot discover.
The Scorpion was taken by the British in the year 1781, a fatal year for the navy of Virginia.
In the year 1857 an unsigned article on the subject of the Virginia Navy was published in the “Southern Literary Messenger”, which goes on to say: “But of all the sufferings in these troublous times none endured such horrors as did those Americans who were so unfortunate as to become prisoners of war to the British. They were treated more as felons than as honorable enemies. It can scarcely be credited that an enlightened people would thus have been so lost to the common instincts of humanity, as were they in their conduct towards men of the same blood, and speaking the same language with themselves. True it is they sometimes excused the cruelty of their procedures by avowing in many instances their prisoners were deserters from the English flag, and were to be dealt with accordingly. Be this as it may, no instance is on record where a Tory whom the Americans had good cause to regard as a traitor, was visited with the severities which characterized the treatment of the ordinary military captives, on the part of the English authorities. * * * The patriotic seamen of the Virginia navy were no exceptions to the rule when they fell into the hands of the more powerful lords of the ocean. They were carried in numbers to Bermuda, and to the West Indies, and cast into loathsome and pestilential prisons, from which a few sometimes managed to escape, at the peril of their lives. Respect of position and rank found no favor in the eyes of their ungenerous captors, and no appeal could reach their hearts except through the promises of bribes. Many languished and died in those places, away from country and friends, whose fate was not known until long after they had passed away. But it was not altogether abroad that they were so cruelly maltreated. The record of their sufferings in the prisons of the enemy, in our own country, is left to testify against these relentless persecutors.
“In New York and Halifax many of the Virginian officers and seamen were relieved of their pains, alone by the hand of death; and in their own State, at Portsmouth, the like fate overtook many more, who had endured horrors rivalled only by the terrors of the Black Hole of Calcutta. * * * The reader will agree that we do not exaggerate when he shall have seen the case as given under oath by one who was in every respect a competent witness.
“It will be remembered that, in another part of this narrative, mention was made of the loss in Lynhaven Bay of the galley Dasher, and the capture of the officers and the crew. Captain Willis Wilson was her unfortunate commander on that occasion. He and his men were confined in the Provost Jail at Portsmouth, Virginia, and after his release he made public the ‘secrets’ of that ‘Prison House,’ by the following deposition, which is copied from the original document.
“‘The deposition of Willis Wilson, being first sworn deposes and sayeth: That about the 23rd July last the deponent was taken a prisoner of war; was conducted to Portsmouth (Virginia) after having been plundered of all his clothing, etc., and there lodged with about 190 other prisoners, in the Provost. This deponent during twenty odd days was a spectator to the most savage cruelty with which the unhappy prisoners were treated by the English. The deponent has every reason to believe there was a premeditated scheme to infect all the prisoners who had not been infected with the smallpox. There were upwards of 100 prisoners who never had the disorder, notwithstanding which negroes, with the infection upon them, were lodged under the same roof of the Provost. Others were sent in to attend upon the prisoners, with the scabs of that disorder upon them.
“‘Some of the prisoners soon caught the disorder, others were down with the flux, and some from fevers. From such a complication of disorders ’twas thought expedient to petition General O’Hara who was then commanding officer, for a removal of the sick, or those who were not, as yet, infected with the smallpox. Accordingly a petition was sent by Dr. Smith who shortly returned with a verbal answer, as he said, from the General. He said the General desired him to inform the prisoners that the _law of nations was annihilated_, that he had nothing then to bind them but bolts and bars, and they were to continue where they were, but that they were free agents to inoculate if they chose.
“‘About thirty agreed with the same Smith to inoculate them at a guinea a man; he performed the operation, received his guinea from many, and then left them to shift for themselves, though he had agreed to attend them through the disorder. Many of them, as well as those who took it in the natural way, died. Colonel Gee, with many respectable characters, fell victims to the unrelenting cruelty of O’Hara, who would admit of no discrimination between the officers, privates, negroes, and felons; but promiscuously confined the whole in one house. * * * They also suffered often from want of water, and such as they got was very muddy and unfit to drink.
“‘This day came before me Captain Willis Wilson and made oath that the above is true.
There is much of great interest in this article on the Virginia Navy which is not to our present purpose. The writer goes on to tell how, on one occasion, the ship Favorite, bearing a flag of truce, was returning to Virginia, with a number of Americans who had just been liberated or exchanged in Bermuda, when she was overhauled by a British man-of-war, and both her crew and passengers robbed of all they had. The British ships which committed this dastardly deed were the Tiger, of 14 guns, and the schooner Surprise, of 10 guns.
Captain James Barron, afterwards Commodore Barren, was the master spirit of the service in Virginia. One of the Virginian vessels, very appropriately named the Victory, was commanded by him, and was never defeated.
In 1781 Joseph Galloway wrote a letter to Lord Howe in which he says: “The rebel navy has been in a great measure destroyed by the small British force remaining in America, and the privateers sent out from New York. Their navy, which consisted, at the time of your departure, of about thirty vessels, is now reduced to eight, and the number of privateers fitted out in New England amounting to an hundred and upwards is now less than forty.”